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Rise of a Free School

Toby Young’s astonishing second career as an education reformer

Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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The auto-da-fé prepared after 2009 by Britain’s journalists and politicians was worthy of a more prominent figure. Fiona Millar (Cherie Blair’s former adviser) and Peter Wilby (former editor of the New Statesman) predicted that a failure like Toby Young could never pull it off. Wilby called him “an imbecile, a prat, and a pain in the hindquarters.” The notably humorless Polly Toynbee, whose columns in the Guardian echo the judgments of her grandfather, the world-historical historian of the world, jokingly called it “the Toby Young school of ethics.”

For her part, Millar (Twitter handle @schooltruth) is a member of several organizations and websites that attack Free Schools in general and Young in particular, and writes columns, blog posts, and tweets aimed at him. “It’s about the nervous middle class finding another way of avoiding local schools,” wrote the granddaughter of the Labour aristocrat Anthony Wedgwood Benn, formerly 2nd Viscount Stansgate, whose ethical contortions in the 1960s trying to find a good school for his son are still widely snickered over. Tristram Hunt, a Labour MP, himself the son of a lord and graduate of private schools, called Toby’s projected Free School “a vanity project for Yummie Mummies in West London.” Peter Wilby was the only figure on the left who showed any mercy to Young, when he concluded his column by saying “if the free school concept has any intellectual coherence”—which he very much doubted—“it is largely thanks to him.”

To me, who like many other Americans had known the fin-de-siècle Toby Young-about-Manhattan, the story of Toby’s transformation is as marvelous and incredible as a tale from the Thousand and One Nights. To appreciate how high he has risen in 21st-century Britain, you must understand how low he had sunk in 20th-century America. Toby had persuaded Graydon Carter to bring him to Vanity Fair from London in 1995 for a monthlong tryout that expanded into three years’ employment. He arrived at the Condé Nast building that year with a curious ambition: to become a celebrity journalist so important that celebrities would know Toby didn’t care what they thought of him. He failed. As a journalist he rose no higher than his role as “a glorified caption-writer” for the magazine. His greatest achievement was not a scoop but a colossal faux pas: He hired a “strippergram” dancer to deliver a birthday lapdance to a colleague at the Vanity Fair offices. The fatal day happened to coincide with Condé Nast’s Bring Your Daughter to Work Day. “They can’t take that away from me,” he muses in How to Lose Friends

Toby is more than the diligent journalist he calls himself. He is the Shelley of self-disparagement, and his memoir of New York an Inferno of self-deprecation. Of course, like the Inferno, How to Lose Friends has a Virgil to guide its author: Graydon Carter. As the coeditor of the anti-celebrity Spy magazine before running the celebrity-dependent magazine Vanity Fair, and as a Canadian, Carter interpreted for Toby the differences between English and American culture, and tried to guide him over the narrow border between contempt for celebrities and adoration. Like Dante, Toby gives his Virgil some of the best lines: At Vanity Fair’s annual post-Oscar party in Los Angeles, “Toby, how many times do I have to tell ya, don’t bother the celebrities.” In England, Toby’s success in launching the first Free School (there will be 180 running this fall) bothered more celebrities than he could have done at a dozen Vanity Fair Oscar parties. Was Condé Nast merely a boot camp for Toby’s career as education reformer?

When I visited him at the West London Free School this spring, Toby quoted one of his favorite mottos, a remark by Kingsley Amis about how you should “never make a joke against yourself.” I’ve never seen Toby follow this advice. His inability to do so, I think, manifests an obligation he feels to demonstrate that a journalist reporting on a celebrity’s feet of clay is himself constructed entirely of mud. He does so most beautifully in an article called “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” an account of a focus group on himself run by a Madison Avenue marketing firm he hired for the occasion. The consumer panel consisted of a number of young women, all of whom he knew, including Candace Bushnell, whose Sex and the City series had just launched on HBO. From behind a two-way mirror, Toby observes the women talking about him in a discussion led by an executive from the marketing firm. The members of the panel know he is behind the mirror, but the conversation rolls on with increasing contempt for him and indifference to his presence.

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